Just before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Barack Obama at the White House yesterday, Israeli news outlets reported that Jewish settlers had recently received a permit from the Jerusalem municipality to construct "20 housing units, shops and a carpark at the Shepherd hotel compound in Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem," according to Al Jazeera. [Susie Kneedler picked up this news, below]. The announcement of the illegal construction is only the latest in a string of Israeli actions taken in the Palestinian Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, which has seen Palestinians being thrown out of their homes and replaced by Jewish settlers.
Where’s the outrage from the Obama administration? When 1,600 new illegal housing units were announced for the Ramat Shlomo settlement in East Jerusalem while Vice President Joe Biden was in Israel, a torrent of criticism from Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and senior political adviser David Axelrod was aimed at the Netanyahu government. Is this announcement any less of a slight, coming on the same day as a meeting between Netanyahu and Obama and two days after Clinton told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference that settlement construction "in East Jerusalem or the West Bank undermines mutual trust?"
Israel is attempting to spin the latest move by telling the United States that the construction in Sheikh Jarrah was approved several months ago, as if that makes it more palatable to the world.
The denunciation from Biden and others came swiftly after the announcement regarding new settlements in Ramat Shlomo. Today, all that we’ve gotten so far is U.S. demands for a "clarification" on the building plan, and this statement, reported by YNet:
"Spokesman Tommy Vietor says the White House continues to believe that Israeli building in Jerusalem is destructive to the Middle East peace process. He says the United States is urging both Israelis and Palestinians to refrain from acts that could undermine trust as the Obama administration looks to jump-start the stalled peace process.
Vietor would not say whether President Barack Obama and Netanyahu discussed the specific building project in their meetings at the White House late Tuesday."
That’s not good enough. The U.S. needs to threaten harsh action against a state that receives over $3 billion a year in aid but refuses to heed U.S. demands, nevermind their obligations under international law.
Was all of the anger over the Ramat Shlomo announcement just a show? Were the denunciations only because of the timing of the announcement and because it was embarassing to the U.S.? I recently got a chance to interview Diana Buttu, a Palestinian-Canadian human rights lawyer who was a former member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s negotiating team, and this is what she had to say on the subject [emphasis mine]:
When the announcement was first made, and there was Biden’s condemnation of the announcement, it became very clear to me that the condemnation was not so much regarding the substance of what the Interior Minister had said, but more of the fact that it was done in his presence, while he was there visiting. The fascinating thing—again, if you look at history—all the way as far back as Baker, when he was purportedly interested in doing something with the Palestinians, Baker himself acknowledges that every visit he made to Jerusalem was marked by an announcement of settlement expansion, or settlement construction, or land confiscation or home demolition. So, this is not new. When Hillary Clinton came there was an announcement, when Secretary of State Rice came there were similar announcements, when Powell came there were similar announcements, with Albright. Every single administration since Bush the father has been met with the same sort of announcements and proclamations. I’m still a little bit stunned that Biden was so taken aback by this particular announcement. But again, if you read through the statements, what becomes very clear is that Biden’s anger was less directed at the substance of it and more directed at the actual timing of it.
You’re absolutely right when you say that many people have made a big deal out of this so-called “strain” on U.S.-Israel relations. I kind of liken it to the fable Chicken Little, where Chicken Little is screaming, “the sky is falling,” and clearly the sky is not falling, but people end up manipulating the statement that “the sky is falling.” So, people are manipulating this so-called “strain” on U.S.-Israel relations. There really is no strain; if there were a strain, we wouldn’t be clinging to harsh words, but instead we’d be seeing the United States taking direct action against Israel. And that’s just not going to happen.
If all the Obama administration can come up with is words, Israel will never change. The question remains, is the Obama administration serious about the detoriorating situation for the Palestinian people?